Seeking to solve portable problem

For two hours, Anyika Kamal listened to accolades about improved test scores at West Prep Academy but heard nothing about whether the Clark County School District would replace the 28 portables now in use on the campus.

Kamal accused School Board members of avoiding a controversial decision in front of a packed auditorium of mostly black and Hispanic families.

"You have people with young babies here, and you go over the same thing three or four times," Kamal said Wednesday. "It's a shame people have to come out here and deal with this same hassle time and time again."

After School Board President Terri Janison told audience members to stop making catcalls, Deborah Jackson and Marzette Lewis of WAAK-UP, a community group in West Las Vegas, attacked what they perceived as a patronizing attitude.

"We have too many people dictating to us like we're slaves on the plantation," Lewis said.

Activists in West Las Vegas, an area bordered by Carey Avenue on the north, Bonanza Road on the south, Interstate 15 on the east and Rancho Drive on the west, have decried the crowded conditions students face at West Prep, which has 56 classrooms contained in portables.

The school is located at 2050 Sapphire Stone Ave., near Lake Mead Boulevard and Tonopah Drive.

The workshop did not delve into district finances though the district is pursuing a $249 million bond program connected with the federal stimulus package.

District officials have said they are updating a list of unfunded modernization projects that tops $300 million.

A capital improvements list from January describes West Prep as a $7 million project.

The issue of whether to build new classrooms comes down to priorities, school board members said.

"If I had a checkbook with an endless amount of money, I would write a check (for the new classrooms) today," said School Board member Chris Garvey.

District spokesman Michael Rodriguez said it's not unusual for a school to have 20 or more portables. He did not know if West had the most portables in the district.

School Board member Carolyn Edwards said West Prep should be considered as a possible project to be funded from the new bond program, which still needs approval from the Clark County Debt Management Commission.

"It's premature to say we're ready to invest millions of dollars in a program we don't know is sustainable," Edwards said after the meeting.

The district normally wouldn't refurbish such a new school -- the West campus opened in 1998. The former middle school was converted to a K-12 program for the 2006-07 school year. One reason it has so many portables is because it still serves as the middle school destination for students from 54 elementary schools.

District officials have said they cannot rezone the middle school grades because it would involve excessive busing.

While a school of choice at the elementary and high school grades, West Prep is not a magnet school. Students come from the surrounding neighborhood.

West Prep became a K-12 school for the sake of greater continuity between grades and a more community-like atmosphere.

West Prep was once the worst performing school in the state, with only 15 percent of students reading at grade level in 2005-06.

Then West's newly appointed principal, Mike Barton recalled thinking that the school was like a movie theater, with one classroom showing the "Finding Nemo" fish cartoon and a classroom across the hall showing Jackie Chan karate movies.

The school was plagued with vandalism and theft. Because so many of the band instruments were stolen, students pretended to play instruments cut out from paper, Barton said.

So few teachers wanted to teach there that the school began with 20 permanent substitute teachers in 2005-06.

West Prep has since shown great strides, with its elementary, middle and high schools all making adequate yearly progress this year under the federal guidelines of No Child Left Behind.

Edwards would like more time to see if the campus can sustain progress at all grade levels, especially the high school grades. She also wonders if West Prep will continue to be successful if Barton decides to leave.

Superintendent Walt Rulffes said the public and the district are closer in agreement than many critics realize.

He said West Prep has become a "facilities issue" because the public has become very supportive of the K-12 campus model.

Because West Prep is funded as an empowerment school, getting an extra $1,000 per student, Rulffes said he feels vindicated in demonstrating that schools can improve once they're adequately funded.

During the contentious meeting, State Assemblyman Harvey Munford and retired state Sen. Joe Neal came out in support of permanent classrooms and the K-12 approach.

Neal said he went to a school much like West Prep in his native Louisiana.

One of his classmates became a general.

"The K-12 model is a good model," he said.

Contact reporter James Haug at or 702-374-7917.